Forestalling Another Rain of Ruin: The Need to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Authors: Zia Mian

Zia Mian, a physicist, directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security. Here, Mian reviews: Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World by Joseph Gerson (Pluto Press, 2007);
Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons by Joseph Cirincione (Columbia University Press, 2007); and
The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor by William Langewiesche (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

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It is a now familiar wisdom that those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. But as Karl Marx once observed, "There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself." Evil, in short, is often repaid both in measure and in kind. This tragic dynamic may be the underlying truth of the nuclear age.

The Greatest Thing In History?

President Harry Truman, who made the decisions to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, called the atomic bomb the "greatest thing in history." It was an American achievement, he claimed, because "The United States had available the large number of scientists of distinction in the many needed areas of knowledge. It had the tremendous industrial and financial resources necessary for the project... It is doubtful if such another combination could be got together in the world." The most advanced society in the world had made its most advanced and deadly weapon.

Having built the bomb, the US used it. In the official press release after the bombing of Hiroshima, President Truman said that unless Japan surrendered, "We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city… they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."

Given the enormous destructive power of the atom bomb, it was perhaps no surprise that President Truman announced that "under present circumstances it is not intended to divulge the technical processes of production or all the military applications" of this new technology. America would keep its monopoly of nuclear weapons for as long as it could.

The possibility of mass destruction proved to be its own lure. Not content with the atom bomb, America went on to make the hydrogen bomb, a weapon with such destructive power that even some of the scientists who had made the atom bomb (including Robert Oppenheimer) were appalled. In an official 1949 report that was ignored by the President, they argued the hydrogen bomb should not be built because it "carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations."

Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi, went further, arguing in a dissent, "The fact that no limits exist on the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light."

Nuclear Threats

Joseph Gerson's compelling new book Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World exposes how both the explicit and implicit threat of the "rain of ruin" has underpinned US policy ever since World War II. He shows where and when and how US Presidents have made nuclear threats, offering a partial listing that includes forty instances in the six decades between 1946 and 2006.

But, as Joseph Gerson rightly points out, the bomb is more than just the immediate threat of nuclear destruction. It serves to permit the use of other kinds of force by warning adversaries that they should be wary of how they respond lest the United States escalate the conflict to the nuclear level. As President Eisenhower put it, "It would be impossible for the United States to maintain the military commitments which it now sustains around the world... did we not possess atomic weapons and the will to use them when necessary." The use of conventional military force backed by an implicit nuclear threat has been all too common. One assessment counted 215 incidents between 1946 and 1975 of the United States' use of its armed forces in efforts to coerce other countries that did not actually lead to war.

It is worth the time of any reader to sit with this book and an atlas, and reflect on how the nuclear shadow has darkened so much of the world. Questions will come to mind. Foremost among them may be: What do people do when threatened with nuclear weapons?

Nuclear Proliferation

Joseph Cirincione's Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons is an effort to try to answer this question. His accessible and compact book offers the current wisdom that prevails among more thoughtful members of the US arms control and nonproliferation community about why countries seek nuclear arms. He argues that there are five drivers: security, prestige, domestic politics, technology, and economics.

With such lures, the real question is, "why are there only nine states (US, Russia, France, England, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) that have nuclear weapons today," while the other 183 countries in the world do not? The answer that Cirincione gives is that political leaders, elites, and public opinion generally are not predisposed towards nuclear weapons. Rather, it is the reverse. Given the choice, they tend overwhelmingly to prefer to do without nuclear weapons. In the states that have weapons, there is clearly a failure of normal politics.

Bomb Scare is more than a book on proliferation theory. It maps the current constellation of nuclear dangers, including the Cold War legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and vast stockpiles of weapons materials, the risk that terrorist groups may acquire nuclear materials, and the proliferation risk from civilian nuclear power. It tackles the critical question of what the United States has been doing about these nuclear dangers, why it has been failing, and some proposals for it what should do.

After decades of arguing about nuclear policy in Washington DC, Cirincione concludes, "A change in US policy, in fact, may be the prerequisite to implementing a global transformation… For it is in the United States that the prestige, security, and domestic drivers for nuclear weapons remain the strongest and the barriers the weakest. In the United States, perhaps more than in any other country, the atom is tied directly to the national ego. For many political leaders, it is inconceivable that the United States would give up the weapon we invented."

The New Abolitionists

But recently, even the hardest of the old American cold warriors have started to talk of the urgent need to abolish nuclear weapons. In January 2007, former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn publicly embraced as a policy for the United States "the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." This vision was endorsed in 2008 by others, Republican and Democrat, including Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Warren Christopher, Colin Powell, and Robert McNamara.

So what has changed? These policy makers were involved throughout the Cold War and afterwards in maintaining and developing the US nuclear arsenal. Many of them directly participated in decisions to threaten its use, but now recognize nuclear weapons as perhaps the greatest threat to US power today.

Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and Nunn explained this clearly in 2007: "North Korea's recent nuclear test and Iran's refusal to stop its program to enrich uranium - potentially to weapons grade - highlight the fact that the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era… unless urgent new actions are taken, the US soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American 'mutually assured destruction' with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies world-wide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used." To preserve American power in the world, they see value in giving up the bomb if this is the price for everyone else giving it up also.

Global Nuclearization?

How we got to this stage is the subject of William Langewiesche's The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. His starting point is that the "technical processes of production" of nuclear weapons that President Truman sought to keep an America secret in 1945 are now out: "detailed knowledge of nuclear bomb-making has fully escaped into the public domain, placing nuclear arsenals within the reach of almost any nation. Once countries make that choice, their rivals will hear the same call… Diplomacy may help to slow the spread, but it can no more stop the process than it can reverse the progression of time. The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed."

Like a good journalist, Langewiesche tries to understand how countries and terrorist groups may try to acquire nuclear weapons or the materials from which to make them. His book is a report from the front-line. He flies to the former Soviet Union's once closed nuclear cities, the heart of their nuclear weapons complex, to places that some believe offer opportunities for stealing nuclear material. He asks, he listens: Yes, it would be hard, and dangerous, but it could be done. He travels to Tblisi in Georgia, and a check-post on the border with Azerbaijan, and to the mountains of eastern Turkey, bordering Iran. If drugs and smugglers can get across, why not nuclear material? Then, to build the bomb, pick a big city (he lists Mombasa, Karachi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Istanbul), find a machine shop, half a dozen skilled people, four months, and he says anyone could have a bomb like the one the United States used to destroy Hiroshima. The bomb was so simple even then that the US did not bother to test it first.

For Langewiesche, though, the nuclear future is not dominated by the threat of imminent attack on the United States by terrorists armed with a simple atomic bomb, but by the risk that Third World countries will acquire nuclear weapons and go to war against each other, especially in South Asia and the Middle East.

He chronicles the life and work of A.Q. Khan, who stole uranium enrichment technology from Europe, ran Pakistan's enrichment program (and relished the claim to be the "father" of Pakistan's bomb), and then allegedly sold this technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps to others.

Langewiesche argues, "There will be other Khans in the future - no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals." Sixty years after Hiroshima, he says, these are simply "the equalities of a maturing world."

To end this threat will mean remaking the world. It will not work to try to limit or prohibit the bomb and try to keep everything else the same. Where to start? It is a curious fact that every state that has developed nuclear weapons has done so in secret from its people. This suggests all states that have or seek the bomb share a common disregard for democracy and their own people.

It is however also the case that public opinion in each country has often initially welcomed entry into the nuclear weapons club. This is in part due to leaders and elites selling the bomb to the public as a great and necessary defense. But it is worth noting that no nuclear-armed state has ever clearly explained to its people what would happen if it carried out its nuclear war plans. It is not clear that people would agree if they were told that genocide was the basis of national defense.

A small step in the right direction may be for peace movements and policy makers to demand that all states reject once and for all Truman's threat of "a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth." A way to do this may be to write into international law the 1961 UN General Assembly declaration that "using nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind (sic) and civilization."

To create new national and international law, we need first to create a new common sense about nuclear weapons. As with the struggle against land mines, we need to mobilize a new global social movement to explain that making, possessing, and threatening to use nuclear weapons are fundamentally evil and criminal activities without exception.